Frequent night wakings

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  April 28, 2010 06:00 AM

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Hi,

I am concerned about my two-year-old son (well, 26 months to be exact). He has always been a good sleeper, we are very fortunate. He will sleep through the night fine, unless he is ill.

For the past week, he has been waking several times a night, hysterically crying, standing up in his crib.  When I go in, he wants me to pick him up and then immediately put him back in his crib where he promptly falls back to sleep. The number of times this occurs per night and at what time varies from night to night.  On the worst night, it was 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5:30 a.m., 6 a.m., and 6:30 a.m. Other times it has been earlier, 9:30 p.m. and 11 p.m.

I am not sure what is causing it. It doesn't appear to be "night terrors" from what I have read, as he is awake and talking to me. However, it's odd that it keeps happening, and that he falls right back to sleep once I pick him up and put him back down.

I assume this is a developmental phase but am unsure of what I should be doing here. It seems impossible to "Ferberize" during this time as he continues crying and crying until my husband or I go in.

Is there something we should be doing? Is this cause for greater concern? How do we break this habit and get back to being the 11- hour-a-night sleeper without interruption again!?

Thanks!

From: Lynne, Newton
 

Hi Lynne,

 My first thought is that he's getting sick, in which case this has probably passed. Here are some thoughts, in case it hasn't:

 It's very typical for a 2- to 3-year-old's sleeping patterns to change, especially to have a bunch of night wakings, T. Berry Brazelton writes in his remarkable book, "Touchpoints, Birth to Three." In his equally helpful (and smaller) book, "Sleep, the Brazelton Way," he writes, the child "will cry out as if in a bad dream. She will demand their presence as if each separation were a tragic one. When her parents are vulnerable, having been away all day, she will sense their vulnerability and demand their presence at night." He goes on to say, "It is up to parents to decide" whether they comply or not.

Changes in routine (you were visiting at grandma's for the weekend) or a stress in the family or even for the child (immunization appointment, change in caregiver) can also contribute to frequent wakings. Brazelton calls this a plea for comfort. He suggests dealing with it by allowing her to be more dependent during the day if she's clingy or needier than usual.

During the night, reassure her that she can go back to sleep by herself; remind her of her bedtime pattern, repeat some of it ("Here's your blankie."). Be firm but sympathetic; getting angry or showing your frustration gets you nowhere. Also set a clear expectation: "I know you can go back to sleep all by yourself." After the first time of doing this, try standing in the doorway to her room to gently remind her she can go back to sleep, or even just call to her from your room. My guess is, Lynne, that what's going on with your son falls somewhere into this category.

It's also typical for night terrors to develop at this age.
They are characterized by thrashing about and screaming. If you ask him the next morning, "Do you remember waking up last night?" the answer will be no. (If your child is having night terrors, make sure she's safe, don't try to wake her, don't talk to her, just hold her or rub her back until they subside.)

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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13 comments so far...
  1. Our two-year old is going through this same event. According to her pediatrician, it's pretty normal and will pass with time. It's no fun for the parents, but all it really takes is a gentle touch, maybe a re-adjustment of blankets and 5 minutes later, we're all back to sleep.

    Posted by Phe April 28, 10 07:37 AM
  1. "When I go in, he wants me to pick him up..."

    And there's your clue.

    Posted by Mark Richards April 28, 10 07:55 AM
  1. We are going thru the same thing too! Youare not alone.
    It is normal at different stages that their sleep patterns change. My 3 year old still comes in our room in the middle of the night. That is going to be another project soon. But my 15 month old is also doing this. I have tried a variation of the Ferber method I guess you would say, and I have noticed some changes the last couple of nights. However, I am not sure how much of it is just plain luck or if it is actually accomplishing something!!! I am looking into books as well...I have to get to the bookstore this weekend!!! Keep your chin up!

    Posted by jd April 28, 10 08:19 AM
  1. As a mom to a kid who's never been a great sleeper, I guess I'd give him what he wants for a couple of weeks in case he's going through a growth or development phase. It may pass. My son is now 3, but probably about a year ago when I talked to his pediatrician about night-waking, he felt that traditional baby sleep training wasn't the best response given a 2 yr-old's emotional and developmental needs. He supported me in going into my son's room and being present (I kept an inflated air mattress, blanket and pillow so I could be more comfortable) so he'd know I was there, but other than a brief comforting, I didn't interact with him. He still wakes once a night, a few times each week (not screaming, just needing some help to fall back to sleep), so things have evolved. In the meantime, just be sure to trade off with your partner so you get a couple of nights of uninterrupted sleep in a row. It will make the "on duty" nights more bearable!

    Posted by matthew'smom April 28, 10 08:34 AM
  1. Our son went through the same thing, although he was about 2.5. He's in a bed so he would come into our room every night crying - usually sometime b/w 2 and 4am. He was having bad dreams, one of which he remembered and told me. This lasted for a little over a week and then went away. At the time, he was being transitioned to a new room at daycare. He was very excited about it and would tell us each morning that he wanted to go to preschool, but we thought the change could be causing some anxiety.

    Posted by Jen D April 28, 10 11:13 AM
  1. My son is around the same age and has been doing the same thing for a few weeks now. Not every night but a couple nights a week. No signs of sickness or anything. My husband or I have to go in, pick him up, hold him for a minute or two and he goes back into the crib and falls asleep. I just remind myself that he is only 2 years old and there are far worse things that could be going on. Is it really that terrible to have to in and comfort them for a few minutes? I think not.

    Posted by m'smom April 28, 10 12:26 PM
  1. Our eight month old will do this sometimes on the hour. All he usually needs is for us to plug the binky back into his mouth and tuck in his covers, but it can make for a long night sometimes. Other nights he sleeps right through without an incident, sometimes they just need comforting I guess.

    Posted by tictoc02660 April 28, 10 12:26 PM
  1. My 16 month old has been doing this on and off for 2 months now. At his 15 month checkup we discovered that he had an ear infection. He had shown no signs of one at all: no pulling on ears, no fever, no head colds, or any of the other signs that a child with limited speak would exhibit. His Pedi said that the only sign I would have if another occurs is if he wakes up repeatedly every night given his lack of symptoms.

    Posted by Steph April 28, 10 03:27 PM
  1. disorienting and sometimes scary when this happens. in our case, it was a phase of a week or so and then back to normal.

    Posted by Stefan @dadtoday.com April 28, 10 09:54 PM
  1. Why is this section of Boston.com call "Moms". Are these issues exclusive to female parents? Is there a separate "Dads" section for male parents? Seems very sexist to me.

    Posted by Matt K April 28, 10 10:23 PM
  1. oh boy, this came at a good time! We were on day 3 of little sleep for any of us, thanks to my 26 month old, who has been a great sleeper since 5-6 months! After reading this, we realized crying it out wasn't going to work :) So, when she woke up twice before midnight and didn't settle in within 5 min or so, I went in, held her hand and talked softly to her, then traded her lovey for my hand and voila - maybe we were just lucky but we didn't hear anything more after about 11 pm. I am really against letting her in our bed or sleeping in her room, as I feel that these are just more habits we'll have to break later and I prefer to focus on the desired long term behavior instead. Only time will tell if this is a good approach!

    Anyway thanks for posting this, it was great to know we're not alone!

    Posted by canukmama April 29, 10 09:56 AM
  1. My child developed the waking multiple times in the night because of sleep apnea. He had his adenoids removed two weeks ago today and we are still up multiple times every night! I think he now is in a behavioral pattern and the only thing that calms him down is a drink. But he drinks it all quickly and in two hours is screaming again! As a result, not only are my husband and I sleep deprived, but my 5 year old is as well, and sick of it! What else can we do?

    Posted by kim May 5, 10 06:33 AM
  1. my daughter is also waking up crying she is 2 i think there night mares is there any way to stop them???

    Posted by ks May 31, 10 07:59 PM
 
13 comments so far...
  1. Our two-year old is going through this same event. According to her pediatrician, it's pretty normal and will pass with time. It's no fun for the parents, but all it really takes is a gentle touch, maybe a re-adjustment of blankets and 5 minutes later, we're all back to sleep.

    Posted by Phe April 28, 10 07:37 AM
  1. "When I go in, he wants me to pick him up..."

    And there's your clue.

    Posted by Mark Richards April 28, 10 07:55 AM
  1. We are going thru the same thing too! Youare not alone.
    It is normal at different stages that their sleep patterns change. My 3 year old still comes in our room in the middle of the night. That is going to be another project soon. But my 15 month old is also doing this. I have tried a variation of the Ferber method I guess you would say, and I have noticed some changes the last couple of nights. However, I am not sure how much of it is just plain luck or if it is actually accomplishing something!!! I am looking into books as well...I have to get to the bookstore this weekend!!! Keep your chin up!

    Posted by jd April 28, 10 08:19 AM
  1. As a mom to a kid who's never been a great sleeper, I guess I'd give him what he wants for a couple of weeks in case he's going through a growth or development phase. It may pass. My son is now 3, but probably about a year ago when I talked to his pediatrician about night-waking, he felt that traditional baby sleep training wasn't the best response given a 2 yr-old's emotional and developmental needs. He supported me in going into my son's room and being present (I kept an inflated air mattress, blanket and pillow so I could be more comfortable) so he'd know I was there, but other than a brief comforting, I didn't interact with him. He still wakes once a night, a few times each week (not screaming, just needing some help to fall back to sleep), so things have evolved. In the meantime, just be sure to trade off with your partner so you get a couple of nights of uninterrupted sleep in a row. It will make the "on duty" nights more bearable!

    Posted by matthew'smom April 28, 10 08:34 AM
  1. Our son went through the same thing, although he was about 2.5. He's in a bed so he would come into our room every night crying - usually sometime b/w 2 and 4am. He was having bad dreams, one of which he remembered and told me. This lasted for a little over a week and then went away. At the time, he was being transitioned to a new room at daycare. He was very excited about it and would tell us each morning that he wanted to go to preschool, but we thought the change could be causing some anxiety.

    Posted by Jen D April 28, 10 11:13 AM
  1. My son is around the same age and has been doing the same thing for a few weeks now. Not every night but a couple nights a week. No signs of sickness or anything. My husband or I have to go in, pick him up, hold him for a minute or two and he goes back into the crib and falls asleep. I just remind myself that he is only 2 years old and there are far worse things that could be going on. Is it really that terrible to have to in and comfort them for a few minutes? I think not.

    Posted by m'smom April 28, 10 12:26 PM
  1. Our eight month old will do this sometimes on the hour. All he usually needs is for us to plug the binky back into his mouth and tuck in his covers, but it can make for a long night sometimes. Other nights he sleeps right through without an incident, sometimes they just need comforting I guess.

    Posted by tictoc02660 April 28, 10 12:26 PM
  1. My 16 month old has been doing this on and off for 2 months now. At his 15 month checkup we discovered that he had an ear infection. He had shown no signs of one at all: no pulling on ears, no fever, no head colds, or any of the other signs that a child with limited speak would exhibit. His Pedi said that the only sign I would have if another occurs is if he wakes up repeatedly every night given his lack of symptoms.

    Posted by Steph April 28, 10 03:27 PM
  1. disorienting and sometimes scary when this happens. in our case, it was a phase of a week or so and then back to normal.

    Posted by Stefan @dadtoday.com April 28, 10 09:54 PM
  1. Why is this section of Boston.com call "Moms". Are these issues exclusive to female parents? Is there a separate "Dads" section for male parents? Seems very sexist to me.

    Posted by Matt K April 28, 10 10:23 PM
  1. oh boy, this came at a good time! We were on day 3 of little sleep for any of us, thanks to my 26 month old, who has been a great sleeper since 5-6 months! After reading this, we realized crying it out wasn't going to work :) So, when she woke up twice before midnight and didn't settle in within 5 min or so, I went in, held her hand and talked softly to her, then traded her lovey for my hand and voila - maybe we were just lucky but we didn't hear anything more after about 11 pm. I am really against letting her in our bed or sleeping in her room, as I feel that these are just more habits we'll have to break later and I prefer to focus on the desired long term behavior instead. Only time will tell if this is a good approach!

    Anyway thanks for posting this, it was great to know we're not alone!

    Posted by canukmama April 29, 10 09:56 AM
  1. My child developed the waking multiple times in the night because of sleep apnea. He had his adenoids removed two weeks ago today and we are still up multiple times every night! I think he now is in a behavioral pattern and the only thing that calms him down is a drink. But he drinks it all quickly and in two hours is screaming again! As a result, not only are my husband and I sleep deprived, but my 5 year old is as well, and sick of it! What else can we do?

    Posted by kim May 5, 10 06:33 AM
  1. my daughter is also waking up crying she is 2 i think there night mares is there any way to stop them???

    Posted by ks May 31, 10 07:59 PM
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Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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